When the Jewish Federation of North America hosts the GA in Jerusalem this week, there will be one session on inclusion of Jews with disabilities. The speakers are terrific and I urge all participants to attend. But this panel discussion will be one in a long line of “too little, too slow” actions by JFNA to embrace inclusion of Jews with disabilities.
For the record, I have raised tens of millions of dollars and worked for Jewish and Israel-related causes, including serving for a decade as the volunteer chair of my local UJA campaign. So I when I speak of the shortcomings of JFNA, I do so with a very heavy heart. I strongly believe that Federations are a vital part of what enables us as a community to survive and thrive.
Federations are the very definition of the “golden rule” as they have the gold, so they can make the rules. Yet Federations continue to allocate millions in donor dollars to Jewish organizations that consistently discriminate against Jews with disabilities. Sadly, JFNA has done little more than “talk the talk” about inclusion, while failing to “walk the walk.”
As a parent, I have faced the rejection of my child from a Federation funded Jewish day school, as well as synagogues and other parts of Jewish life, based simply on my terrific child’s disability. Sadly, I am not unique in this. At a time when the Jewish community is wringing its hands to keep Jews inside our tents, tens of thousands of Jews are being denied access to Jewish life based solely on their disabilities. Many of those Jews with disabilities, when they are rejected, will take family members and other loved ones who are disgusted that their community practices discrimination. Most, for a variety of reasons will go away quietly. I will not.
Jewish groups have a long and proud history of standing with civil rights. We can and must do better. We have stood for the rights of African Americans, women, workers and other minorities.
Just now, the Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of more than 25 Jewish organizations co-led by JFNA and active in promoting the rights of and providing for the needs of people with disabilities, is urging the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD represents an international effort to bring the world closer to achieving the goals of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities.
Yet, many of the groups that are in the coalition, not only the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), spend millions of dollars a year in Jewish organizations that regularly deny access to people with disabilities (PWDs). Indeed, at the largest Jewish day school in America, which is partially funded with Federation dollars and prides itself as being a “community school,” students with more involved disabilities get a “you are not welcome here” when they try to attend. This, in a school with a $30 million annual budget, 1,000 students, hundreds of staff members and a CEO who makes 400K a year.
In a letter admitted into U.S. Senate testimony just this week regarding the disability treaty that reeks of well-intentioned hypocrisy, the JFNA co-led coalition pointed out that “Judaism stresses the obligation to ensure equal access for all people and to help facilitate the full participation of individuals with disabilities in religious and public life.”
Yet some of the signers of the letter are the biggest backers of Jewish day schools, synagogues, camps that do not do nearly enough to open their gates, hearts and minds to REAL inclusion, fairness and justice for Jews with disabilities.
This year JFNA has taken some important baby steps. They have passed a good policy on paper, co-sponsored some important conferences on inclusion (one of which, for full disclosure, was with my family foundation), and nationally offered to take five interns with disabilities.
But in a system raising hundreds of millions of dollars, servicing millions of Jews and employing thousands of Jewish communal workers between the Federations themselves and the agencies they sponsor, we can no longer accept the unacceptable.
As Jewish groups urge the Senate to support the treaty, I urge them to live up to the values they preach. I urge them to support swift changes in all our agencies so that the Jewish community can continue its leadership role in promoting equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for all people.
Do it because it is the right thing and the Jewish thing to do. Do it also because it is in our self-interest. If you want to get more Jews involved in Jewish life you can start by taking the Jews with disabilities and their family members who are already banging on our doors, wanting to get in.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com in Washington, D.C and the co-founder of RespectAbilityUSA. She is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.